Neat technology, bad idea

Arthur Caplan

February 20, 1991|By Arthur Caplan

REMEMBER the television commercial in which Abraham Lincoln, who's looking for an executive position, is humiliated by a job counselor?

"You got no college education, no sheepskin, buddy," the counselor sniffs. "We'll get back to you." A chastened Lincoln shuffles off.

Well, Honest Abe is about to go through a different sort of wringer. Now,125 years after his death, scientists want to see if he had the biological stuff of which leaders are made.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., recently appointed a committee of doctors and scientists to decide whether samples of Lincoln's hair, bone and blood -- kept at the museum since his autopsy -- should be subjected to genetic analysis.

The researchers want to know if Lincoln had a genetic condition known as Marfan's syndrome. Marfan's causes those who have it to grow tall and gangly. It also causes abnormalities in the bones, joints and blood vessels. About 40,000 Americans have this genetic disease.

The scientists are thinking about taking a tiny sample of Lincoln's tissue, extracting his DNA from the cells and copying it thousands of times to get enough genetic material to run the newly available test for Marfan's.

Neat technology, but a bad idea. A retrospective autopsy of the genes of an historic figure like Lincoln for no pressing reason smacks more of voyeurism than of science. What if the genetic sleuths discover that Lincoln's DNA contains some other genetic anomaly -- say Huntington's disease, or an abnormal extra chromosome or mosaicism (a mixture of male and female genes)?

Would Lincoln want such things known? Do researchers, you or I have the right to know them simply because Lincoln is not here to invoke his right to privacy? Would you put up with this invasion of your most intimate private medical facts?

If scientists are encouraged to satisfy our curiosity about Lincoln's biology, who will be next? Will People magazine start a new "bad seed" feature? Will "Inside Edition" reveal that Al Capone really did suffer from XYY syndrome? Will other presidents, their families or other public figures need to embargo their mortal remains to prevent unwanted genetic snooping by subsequent generations?

There is no fun in arguing that there are facts out there that ought not be known -- especially when it would be easy to get the facts, and when those who might be hurt by their disclosure are long since dead.

There is no reason to suppose that Lincoln would object to what the scientists want to do. But doesn't it make more sense to understand and appreciate Lincoln's legacy through his words and deeds rather than through his DNA?

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

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